How to choose your first trail running shoes

How do we runners get to needing trail running shoes? Most of us, myself included, start our running careers in a pair of whatever trainers we happen to have at the time; gym shoes, tennis shoes, all-purpose shoes. If we can run in them, they’ll do. At some point further down the road, so to speak, we venture into the complex world of specialist road-running shoes, where cushioning, stability, pronation and a whole host of brand names are added to our vocabularies, as we find a brand and model that we can run for miles in. When it comes to our first ventures off-road, using the same shoes is a natural progression, for they can cope with dry, flattish, hard-packed trails; if we can run in them, they’ll do. There comes a point, though – usually following an encounter between our backsides and some wet, steep or muddy ground - when every new-to-trails runner realises that trail shoes need to be on our shopping lists if we are to carry on exploring trails and remain upright.

Not that many years ago, the off-road shoe section of any running shop often had to be hunted for, and the few brands and models available would be found hidden in some dusty corner, out of sight of most regular runners. Times have changed, though, and trail/mountain/fell shoes now take pride of place on the shelves alongside the road-running shoes. But with such a plethora of makes and models available, where do you begin?

Here are the top questions to ask yourself when choosing your first pair of off-road running shoes:

What kind of terrain am I going to run on?

The type of ground you plan to run on is probably the most important consideration of all, for the shoes that serve you well on a hard-packed trail will let you down on a wet, slippery fell-side. Be it woodland paths, muddy field-side tracks, rocky mountainsides or boggy moorland, there will be a shoe to suit. Look at the soles of a range of off-road shoes and you’ll see a real variance. Shoes suitable for hard-packed trails will have a sole not dissimilar to road running shoes; there’ll be a bit more grip, but not much. At the other end of the spectrum, shoes for running on slippery mountainsides will look very different, with large lugs that provide maximum grip.

In addition, unlike road running shoes, those designed for trails, fells and mountains are rarely constructed to accommodate variances in gait. When landing on softer, uneven terrain, foot placement is irregular, negating the need for specific support. If you plan on running only on very  hard-packed trails and are an under- or over-pronator, though, shoes without the right support could lead to injury, so it may be worth you seeking out one of the few the gait-specific models that are available. Otherwise, don't bother; buy yourself a neutral pair.

Less grip for hard-packed trails; deeper grip for more challenging terrain; aggressive lugs for the muddiest, steepest ground

How far am I likely to run?

The further you plan to run, the more important comfort becomes. Shoes that feel fine for a 5-mile cross-country blast are unlikely to feel as comfortable for the length an ultra. Many off-road shoes, particularly those designed for fell and mountain running, have very little cushioning between the sole of the foot and the sole of the shoe; this is to improve the feel of the terrain under the feet and enable faster movement over rough ground. If you are used to thicker cushioning on your road shoes, wearing shoes like these can come as a bit of a shock when you can feel every stone under your feet! If you know that your off-road running is going to be short and/or fast, then by all means give them a try; if not, you might want to start with a more cushioned pair – your feet will thank you for it!

Lots of cushioning for longer distances and less technical terrain; minimal cushioning for shorter distances and more technical terrain

How often am I likely to use off-road shoes?

As with road-running shoes, those designed to be used on trails and mountains fall within a vast price range. If you are going to be running off-road several times a week, then buy the best shoes you can afford; the rougher the terrain you are running on, the more the wear and tear on the shoes, so paying for high quality is a must. On the other hand, if you are venturing onto the trails just once or twice a month, you can probably get away with a cheaper pair to get you started. When you fall in love with running off-road (and you will!), you can always upgrade at a later date.

On the subject of money, beware of paying for features that you really don’t need, Goretex being one. The attraction of paying more for a pair of trail running shoes that will keep your feet dry, or drier, can be great, but bear in mind that it only requires you to step into one deep puddle, or sink to your ankles in one bog, and water will come over the top and into your shoe anyway. Personally, I’d skip the Goretex and save the money for another piece of kit instead!

Where is my local running shop?

Even with all of the advice above, buying off-road shoes online will be tricky. Great pictures and descriptions, along with recommendations from your running friends, will not necessarily result in a pair of shoes that fits you well and it right for the terrain you’ll be running on. Finding your local running shop and seeking their advice is the way to go. Try on a range of pairs. See what it feels like to have little or no cushioning under your feet, feel and compare the lugs on the soles. OK, you won’t be able to replicate running up a rough hillside (unless you have a pretty amazing shop nearby!) but at least you will be confident that the shoes fit you properly, are comfortable, and have the right kind of grip for where you plan to run.

And finally, do beware! Having the right shoes will feed your off-road running addiction. It won’t be long before you are joining the ‘pair-of-off-road-shoes-for-every-possible-terrain’ club!